Madness and Emancipation: The Tales of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav

Instructor: Yitzhak Lewis
The Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street New York
New York 10011

This course will introduce students to one of the most creative figures of the Hasidic movement, and one of the key figures in the conceptualization of a Jewish literary modernity. Rabbi Nachman of Braslav (1772—1810) is widely recognized as a unique figure among Hasidic rabbis. His associative and speculative teachings, coupled with highly imaginative stories, set him apart from traditional modes of Hasidic expression. We will begin by outlining the historical and ideological context of Rabbi Nachman’s work and familiarizing ourselves with his major texts and themes, then turn to selections from his teachings and tales. Throughout the course, our readings will track the theme of emancipation in Rabbi Nachman’s work. We will read and discuss the multiple levels on which he understood the operations of the political project we call “emancipation”: as a project of rethinking the social limits of inclusion and exclusion; of losing the public markers and designations that are essential for communal (in Nachman’s case, Jewish) identity; of parsing the relation between public and private, and the disruptive role of secrecy in this relation; and of reshuffling social elements of visibility and invisibility. A contemporary of Kant and Mendelssohn, the Hatam Sofer and Joseph Perl, Rabbi Nachman’s short life spanned the American and French revolutions, the three divisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the establishment of the Russian Pale of Settlement.  The insights Nachman offers into the prospects and perils of political emancipation raise timely questions about our present globalizing world and its political order.

(No prior knowledge of Hebrew or Braslav Hasidism is necessary and all readings will be in English.)

Course Schedule

Monday, 7-9pm
November 03 — December 15, 2014
6 sessions over 7 weeks